It was a story so ridiculous it seemed destined to go viral: A new Harlem resident, a white woman going only by the name Mackenzie, launched a veritable war against a neighborhood ice cream truck, complaining loudly and persistently about the noise and attempting, several times, to call 311—New York City’s hotline for quality of life complaints.
Not only did police never respond to Mackenzie’s calls; she was roundly mocked by her neighbors and the internet at large.
But recent data shows the Mackenzies of New York aren’t isolated—or altogether innocent—incidents.
A new study released by anti-poverty advocacy group the Community Service Society, “New Neighbors and the Over-Policing of Communities of Color,” gives a clearer idea of the broader impact New York City’s white gentrifiers have on the communities of color they move into: Not only do those white residents make the communities less recognizable for longterm residents—they bring with them increased police presence and make their black and brown neighbors feel less safe.
The data builds on existing research—including notable investigations from BuzzFeed and the Atlantic—documenting how predominantly white gentrifiers reshape the communities of color they move into. The BuzzFeed piece, published in June 2018 as CSS researchers were wrapping up their own analysis, found that 311 calls—specifically, noise complaints—spiked in gentrified neighborhoods between 2015 and 2017.
But as Harold Stolper, the study’s author and a senior economist at CSS, told The Root, researchers wanted to connect how police responded to those quality of life complaints and how those police interactions affected the black and brown residents of gentrifying neighborhoods. For their study, CSS only looked at 311 complaints that were referred to the police—almost 9 percent, notably—and documented the outcomes of those police interactions. That data was then compared to surveys on residents’ views and experiences with the NYPD.
What they found was that summons and arrest outcomes were three times more likely in lower-income communities of color after a high influx of white residents moved into the neighborhood (the study takes a longer view than the BuzzFeed analysis, looking at data from 2011 up through 2016). Those tracts included swaths of Brooklyn (namely, the Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, Lefferts Gardens and South Williamsburg neighborhoods, as well as pockets of southwest Brooklyn), and uptown Manhattan.
Stolper, himself a 15-year resident of central Harlem, has witnessed how gentrification continually reshaped his neighborhood. While the data wasn’t surprising given his own conversations with longtime residents of the neighborhood, Stolper says he still finds the dramatic increase in complaints that occurs when white people move into a black or brown neighborhood “striking.”
This increased police presence has impacted the community in unsettling ways. As CSS’s survey data shows, the majority of people of color describe these police interactions as making them feel “unsafe.”
CSS is careful to note that there is no data available on the racial or economic background of the callers. But in the BuzzFeed analysis, which included conversations with white residents who called the cops on their black and brown neighbors, callers said they saw the 311 approach as “a way of avoiding conflict.”
The data taken together makes one thing markedly clear: when white people move into a black neighborhood, complaints—and correspondingly, police presence—surge.
That police presence is not without consequence in marginalized communities. The report references Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who was choked to death by an NYPD officer after being stopped for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. While the officers in Garner’s case were not responding to a 311 call, the CSS report notes that Garner’s death “occurred in a neighborhood of Staten Island near new economic development and with increasing complaints for low-level offenses.”
Garner’s death is a reminder of the potential severity of police interactions, Stolper said. This is particularly salient in minority communities, which continue to be policed disproportionately, as black people continue to be more likely to be shot and killed by police than nonblacks.
“These noise complaints are increasingly happening in already marginalized communities, and that’s bringing the police in and that’s making residents feel unsafe, let alone leading to more serious consequences like summonses, arrests, or police brutality,” Stolper said. “It’s frightening.”
Notably, the CSS data found that 311 calls were higher in areas where there was more new market-rate housing construction—not surprising, given that these new developments bring with them new, more affluent residents. But researchers found complaint rates rose even higher in areas that had new, city-subsidized affordable housing.
Stolper says this finding requires more data to truly understand the socio-economic dynamics at play.
“Is it something about the affordable housing itself and who it’s bringing together in close proximity—heightening neighborhood cultural conflicts, which leads to noise complaints and other quality of life complaints to bring police in? Or is it being located in neighborhoods which are already hotbeds for cultural conflict?” he said.
“The city has to track information, race, ethnicity, [and] incomes as well as who is occupying the units that are subsidized by the city,” Stolper added.
As the report itself notes, this particular dynamic is distressing because it runs counter to the intent of publicly subsidized affordable housing—to help residents of marginalized communities stay in the places they’ve long called home.
“But if staying in these communities means facing a changing cultural landscape that doesn’t resemble the old one and increasingly places long-time residents at risk of heightened police engagement, then city housing policy has failed them,” the report stated.